Thinning, burning proposed to boost fire tolerance conditions

By Ann McCreary

Recommendations for thinning and prescribed burning on about 7,500 acres in the Buttermilk and Libby watersheds were provided to the Methow Ranger District last week as it develops plans for a large forest restoration project.

Preliminary plans for the “Mission Project” are expected to ready for public comment by late February when the U.S. Forest Service releases its proposed action and begins the public scoping phase of the environmental review process, Connie Mehmel, acting ranger for the Methow Ranger District, said this week.

The Mission Project, which aims to restore dense forests in Libby and Buttermilk watersheds to a more fire-tolerant condition, was the subject of a public meeting Jan. 20 at the Twisp Valley Grange. A consultant hired to evaluate forest conditions in those watersheds described the recommendations he will suggest to the Methow Ranger District for consideration as it develops the Mission Project.

“Fire suppression, timber harvesting and grazing have changed the way these forests function. This is ground zero for that here,” said Derek Churchill, a University of Washington researcher and forestry consultant.

As a result of those impacts, forests in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds have lost their natural resilience to wildfires that historically burned through the low to moderate elevation portions of those watersheds every seven or so years on the average, Churchill said. Today the forests have become too dense and too uniform, making them vulnerable to unnaturally severe and devastating fires, he said.

Churchill was hired last year by the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, through a grant from the Icicle Foundation, to conduct a landscape analysis and develop recommendations for actions designed to help make the forests better able to survive fire and a warming climate.

The Forest Health Collaborative includes representatives of environmental, tribal, timber and public organizations, and works to increase the amount of forest restoration — like the Mission Project — in the region.

‘Relatively small’ area

Of the 50,000 acres evaluated as part of the Mission Project, the amount recommended for treatment “is relatively small,” Churchill said.

In a breakdown provided to the Methow Valley News after last week’s meeting, Churchill recommended commercial thinning of medium and small diameter trees through timber sales on about 1,096 acres in the Buttermilk watershed, and on about 2,155 in the Libby watershed — a total of 3,251 acres.

No large, old trees will be cut based on his recommendations, Churchill said. “We’re always leaving those old trees not matter what, even if they are diseased,” he said.

Non-commercial thinning of small diameter trees (up to 9 inches in diameter), which usually don’t have a market for sale, would take place on 844 acres in Buttermilk and 1,016 in Libby Creek — a total of 1,860 acres, according to Churchill’s recommendations.

He estimated that a total of 3.3 million board feet of timber would be removed in the Buttermilk watershed and 6.5 million board feet in the Libby watershed. That work would be done by an estimated 730 log trucks in the Buttermilk watershed and 1,500 log trucks in the Libby Creek watershed.

Churchill recommended that thinning be followed by prescribed burning in all areas identified for treatment.

“The prescribed burning afterward is essential, equally if not more important than the tree removal,” he said. In most places the thinning is necessary to safely conduct prescribed burning, but a few places can be treated with fire only, he said.

Some residents of the Libby watershed who attended last week’s meeting expressed concern about the impact of the forest restoration project on roadless and wilderness areas in Mission Project area. The Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness covers the upper elevation parts of both watersheds.

“Are you aware there is a possible wilderness area in the Libby Creek watershed?” asked Pema Bresnahan, a Libby Creek resident.

She was referring to a 5,000-acre area near Lookout Mountain, and another 15,000 acres adjacent to that land, Bresnahan said after the meeting. “That should be evaluated for wilderness before any potential damage” occurs, she said.

Churchill said the recommended restoration activities would not involve building any new roads, so roadless or wilderness areas would not be included in treatment areas. He said some “short temporary spurs” would be created off existing roads to access treatment areas, but would be obliterated after the work is completed.

Pioneering project

The Mission Project is seen as a pioneering undertaking in the Methow Valley by Forest Service officials because it will utilize for the first time in the valley a management approach called the “Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Restoration Strategy.” That strategy addresses restoration on a much larger scale than previous projects, encompassing entire watersheds — thus the 50,000-acre size of the Mission Project.

The strategy is based on understanding historical conditions of forests that contributed to their resiliency to frequent fire, and also considers the impacts of a warmer and drier climate anticipated through climate change in determining the best approach to restoration.

Churchill’s landscape prescription is designed to shift the composition of trees to more fire-tolerant and drought-tolerant species, removing smaller trees and leaving large old trees, reducing ladder and surface fuels, and reducing infestations of dwarf mistletoe.

He said the treatments would also seek to restore a “gappy-clumpy” pattern with open spaces, individual trees and clumps of trees, mimicking the natural mosaic patterns created when low-density fires burn through forests.

Churchill said the specific areas recommended for thinning and burning were selected based on several criteria, including identifying those “most out of whack” with their historical conditions. Considerations also included wildlife and aquatics, access to treatment areas, how fire-prone the areas are, and their strategic placement to interrupt the flow of wildfire.

In the Buttermilk watershed, treatments to thin the understory and reduce the risk of crown fires were suggested for forests around Yoyo Creek, Pine Creek, West Fork Buttermilk Creek and the area northeast of the main stem of Buttermilk Creek, he said.

In the Libby Creek watershed, thinning followed by prescribed fire were suggested for both sides of Mission Creek, as well as in the areas in the north and south forks of Libby Creek, and Hornet Creek. Treatments are also recommended in Ben, Chimacum, Elderberry and Smith canyons, Churchill said.

Away from residences

The total area identified for commercial and non-commercial thinning in Buttermilk is 2,940 acres and 4,805 in Libby, but the actual area treated will be less because steep slopes, riparian areas, springs and other features within the treatment boundaries will be excluded from treatment.

Prescribed burning is recommended on 3,123 acres in the Buttermilk watershed and 4,292 acres in the Libby watershed, according to Churchill’s recommendations.

“The great majority of the recommended treatment areas are not near residences or recreation areas,” Churchill said.

Bresnahan said she and other Libby Creek residents have many questions about the forest treatment proposals and the forest restoration strategy as a whole. She noted that much of the land that burned in Okanogan County over the past two summers was shrub-steppe or grassland, not forests.

“What is wrong with … high- severity fire?” she asked at the meeting. “It’s ecologically necessary for biodiversity.”

Paul Hessburg, a forest researcher, said high-severity fires — defined as fires that kill at least 70 percent of the vegetation — are becoming more common as a result of changes in forests. Unlike lower severity fires that leave patches of trees, these “wall-to-wall” fires leave no trees to provide seeds for new forests.

“That means a lot of forests are converting to grasslands with no way out,” Hessburg said.

“How often are there wall-to-wall fires that completely exclude seeds?” Bresnahan said this week. “People have been scared into thinking these forest fires are this catastrophic thing that’s going to overtake us.”

Libby Creek residents “are not opposed to active management” of forests and would support “hand thinning or low-impact thinning, which means cutting trees in strategically identified areas,” including around homes, roads and infrastructure, Bresnahan said.

“There’s so much work that can be done without logging wild drainages,” she said.

Mehmel said Churchill’s input on forest treatments will be considered as the Forest Service develops its proposed action for the Mission Project. The public will have 30 days to comment on the proposal after it is published.